What is this about the big quarrel between Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier.
Well, it all starts with L’architecture Vivante, Jean Badovici’s 1920s magazine show casing the new Modern Architectural Movements of The Bauhaus, Constructivism and De Stil. Badovici was a friend of Corbusier and featured Le Corbusier in the magazine and championed his architectural work. Another magazine, an avant garde Dutch art magazine Wendingen, devoted an issue to Gray’s designs, including an essay written by the Romanian-born architecture critic Jean Badovici.
Jean and Eileen soon became lovers despite her open lesbianism at the time (it was les annees folles after all, that’s ‘the gay years’ to you an I). She would have been 15 years older than he, she in her late 40s he in his early 30s. They went on to build the villa E-1027 together.
The name is a coded reference to the lovers’ initials intertwined. (The E stands for Eileen, the 10 for Jean, as J is the 10th letter in the alphabet, 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray, geddit?) Eileen, a sensitive and introspective person by all accounts, seems to have enjoyed the subterfuge of pseudonyms. Her Gallery in Paris was called Jean Desert and was a made up name combining a fictitious male ‘Jean’ and her love of Africa expressed in ‘desert’ – desert.
The E-1027, house was designed by Eileen, but was inspired by a design by Le Corbusier for a house for his parents on Lake Geneva, the floor plan is uncannily similar – however – she ‘improved’ it. This would have been taken as a very provocative gesture by Le Corbusier, when it comes to architecture, imitation is never a sincere form of flattery – its plagiarism and to an egotist like Corbusier, the idea of ‘improving’ his design would be quite simply impossible, and don’t mention that she was a woman too. No doubt this is where the first circling in this particular architectural Apache dance started.
Fast forward 12 years to 1938, Jean and Eileen have parted, soon after finishing E-1027, and Le Corbusier spends two summers in the villa, the villa where Eileen had improved on Le Corbusier’s design.
Gray’s design rested on the subtle layering of wall planes, spaces are delineated by the surfaces of the walls. The wall surface is the space. So what does Corb do? – he, with the encouragement of Jean Badovici, but significantly not the permission of Eileen Gray, ‘stains the walls’ by painting a series of murals on the villa’s walls inside and out. ‘I have a furious desire to dirty the walls’ he said. Now a painted wall is not a wall, its surface is a work of art, it no longer functions as a delineation of space – just think of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – it’s no longer architecture it is a vision of god, and it’s Michelangelo’s – same thing at E-1027. Like a dog peeing on a lamppost, Corbusier recaptured HIS villa, not Eileen’s, it was his now, his painting on her perfect walls, his reputation overshadowing hers, his work to be remembered by posterity. He didn’t think of it as “an invasion, but as a gift.” She never gave permission and I suspect never forgave both Corbusier or her ex-lover.
Funny thing is, it hasn’t worked out quite like that, Eileen Gray is now in the ascendant, Le Corbusier’s reputation tarnished by the results of much of his theorising; the grotty estates and the impersonal wind-blown piazzas of his modern urban vision, and the murals, in a style no longer fashionable and not great art, are not really welcome, although they are part of the history of this remarkable Riviera villa.